Category Archives: Great Conversation

This category discusses great works (text, art, theorem) along with their great questions and ideas.

Core Texts and Truth in Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit451This is the first post of a two-part essay on the Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, core texts, and Truth.

I think it best to open with a disclaimer: I am not a classicist. I specialize in the history of Christianity, with an emphasis on Jacobean England. But in our very efficiently staffed history department, all faculty members teach in the Core Curriculum. I teach “America and the World,” a course that uses core texts to bring the students into engagement with modern history, especially modern Western history, and more particularly American history. We have chosen the course’s core texts mainly for their bearing on ideas of proper governance and societal justice.

In our module on the 20th century, we include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. At first blush, it seems we’ve chosen this work for its commentary on government censorship, but it is better understood as an application of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (and associated Diagram of the Line of Knowledge), and therefore as a commentary on justice. That is how I teach it. Continue reading Core Texts and Truth in Fahrenheit 451

The Fruit and Cost of Wisdom

This is the second post of a two-part essay on wisdom and education.

Qoheleth, “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1), casts a long eye on the course of life “to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things” (7:25). Taking an “under the sun,” or purely human and non-heavenly, approach, Qoheleth applies his “heart to seek and search out by wisdom” the way of life (1:3, 13). In reflecting on his experience through this vantage point, Qoheleth repeatedly comes to the same conclusion: life is “vanity,” or to give the literal translation of the Hebrew word hebel, life is “vapor” (1:14). It is insubstantial, momentary, and fleeting. To “know wisdom,” then, is to know the vexation of “striving after the wind” (1:17).

Qoheleth’s major arguments for the non-existence of meaning in life “under the sun” can be summarized in five ways. Continue reading The Fruit and Cost of Wisdom

The Pursuit of Wisdom

 

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This is the first post of a two-part essay on wisdom and education.

The roots of Western education largely rest in the Greek love of pursuing wisdom. In Nicomachean Ethics and Protrepticus, Aristotle envisions those who constantly contemplate wisdom, which is the highest end of humanity, as being like gods. “Understanding,” Aristotle states, “is by nature our end and the exercise of it the final activity for the sake of which we have come into being,” for “every man has been made by god in order to acquire knowledge and contemplate.” Every person, Aristotle says, “who exercises his intellect and cultivates it [is] in the best state and most dear to the gods.” Indeed, it is by means of rational contemplation that people make themselves immortal like the gods. Continue reading The Pursuit of Wisdom

What Is Happiness?

This is the first of two posts on the question of happiness.

Nestled within the opulence of Orange County, California, Concordia University Irvine has the distinct mission to develop “wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.” To this end, the university has created a rich Core Curriculum focused on great works. Eight courses, paired with one another over the first four semesters of a college student’s experience, cover biology, history, theology, philosophy, literature, and mathematics. As students sit in classrooms, library, and dormitory rooms surrounded by professors and books, learning and reading about these subjects, it is tempting to naively believe that the students’ focus aligns with the historic mission of the university.

Encompassing the university, in fact, is the 3rd most populous county in the state, behind only Los Angeles and San Diego, with a median family income of $85,009 (the highest of the top 5 most populated counties in the state). Two of the top 10 richest neighborhoods in the US are minutes away from the university (US Census, 2010). Beaches, snowcapped mountains, Hollywood, and Disneyland are all within a short drive. There appears to be a stark contrast between the life of the student attempting to become wise, honorable and cultivated and the larger community of mansions, Mercedes, and Mickey Mouse.

In reality, however, these seemingly disparate cultures share a common motivation: happiness. Continue reading What Is Happiness?

The Wisdom of Solzhenitsyn

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This is the fourth in a series of four essays on core texts connected to the educational goal of developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.

The student with a beach ball, flip flops, and sunglasses at graduation is neither original nor clever. While the student may be excused for youthful indiscretion, when a graduation speaker is neither original nor clever it is the gravest of all commencement sins.Often times a graduation speech is a panegyric to days gone by or a story with a few ethereal Carnegie-inspired quotes that will evaporate as soon as the student receives the diploma. If what the graduation speaker has to say is so important, a student might wonder, why does it have to wait until the end of the student’s time at university? The graduation speaker is usually remembered for being very brief (very few claim this to be a problem), overly verbose, or upstaged by events beyond their control.

The commencement exercises at Harvard Yard on June 8, 1978 were upstaged by an unexpected and unpleasant cold weather front. The students, parents, and faculty that sat uncomfortably in the weather had also the sometimes jarring experience of hearing a foreign tongue echo only to be chased seconds later by a translator’s approximation. But this speaker was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the famed author of the Gulag Archipelago and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, now residing in Vermont. Continue reading The Wisdom of Solzhenitsyn

Negotiating Honor in Cicero’s De Officiis

Maccari-CiceroThis is the third in a series of four essays on core texts connected to the educational goal of developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.

Concordia University Irvine’s Core Curriculum seeks an ambitious vision set forth in the words of Martin Luther: “to develop wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.” One danger in running with a vision that’s so catchy is that the virtues these words espouse may eventually become confused, diluted, or even meaningless. The hazard is compounded when the word “honorable” enjoys center stage in that vision, a word that for many has eluded a simple definition distinguishable from a kind of vanilla “moral uprightness.” One purpose of this essay, then, is to seek whether clarity can be at least provisionally attained about what we mean by “honor.” To do this we will aim at a discrete delineation along the lines suggested by one core text, Cicero’s De Officiis (“On Obligations” or “On Duties”). Continue reading Negotiating Honor in Cicero’s De Officiis

Euthyphro and Civic Responsibility

This is the second in a series of four essays on core texts connected to the educational goal of developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.

Martin Luther claimed the value of a liberal arts education was in transforming youth into “wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens,” with classic texts instrumental to such a transformation. Moreover, the notion of a responsible citizen has been foundational to all of secular and sectarian Western education. But what is a responsible citizen? When asked of my students, I usually receive a legalistic response. A responsible citizen is one who doesn’t cause trouble for her neighbor, obeys the laws of the land, secures a designated driver when hitting the town, etc. Essentially, the responsible citizen is a rule follower.

Ironically, faculty members often help the student internalize such an anemic view of responsible citizenship. Continue reading Euthyphro and Civic Responsibility

Psalm 1 as Educational Pattern and Vision

This is the first in a series of four essays on core texts connected to the educational goal of developing wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens.

Psałterz_florianski1In 1524 the theological and educational reformer Martin Luther wrote a letter to the councilmen of Germany encouraging them to maintain and establish Christian schools. One snippet nicely summarizes Luther’s missive:

Now the welfare of a city does not consist solely in accumulating vast treasures, building mighty walls and magnificent buildings, and producing a goodly supply of guns and armor. Indeed, where such things are plentiful, and reckless fools get control of them, it is so much the worse and the city suffers even greater loss. A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety, and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and cultivated citizens. They can then readily gather, protect, and properly use treasure and all manner of property.

In Luther’s view, which Concordia University Irvine has adopted and adapted in its Core Curriculum, all young men and women need a proper education so that they can use their gifts and callings in the best way possible to serve society and the church.

But what sort of education best suits this end?  Continue reading Psalm 1 as Educational Pattern and Vision